"It means we're going to have to make sure we cut unnecessary spending," he said. "It's going to mean that we maintain economic growth and we should not raise taxes."--President George W. Bush, speech of September 16, 2005.
"Who shall watch the watchmen?"--Juvenal
This fellow Juvenal was a Roman poet and satirist. He felt his lived in a Rome that had outlived its glory. He was right, as it happened, if by glory we mean imperialism and cultural dominance. he was also right, perhaps, if by glory we mean "admirable impact". I'll leave that to others to debate. In one of his well-known aphorisms, which, incredibly for a poet, has survived the centuries, he expressed concern about how the Roman people, once the commanders of legions, now fixated on bread and circus.
I think that one thing that troubles me in the recent few weeks is that idea that one can do whatever one pleases without cost. We cut taxes in wartime. We watch a storm obliterate one of our major cities, and much of its surrounding region, and we imagine that the cost of its reconstruction need not affect our tax rollbacks.
I think what troubles me the most about our current political situation is the sheer short-sightedness which attends so many major policy decisions, by both parties, on a nearly bipartisan basis. We have had highlighted for us this year, punctuated by the storm, that the time is well past nigh that we must begin the research and
implementation of a program to switch our country to one of the various alternative fuel options. Yet after several administrations, we lack an energy policy which will spend the time and money to accomplish this.
We need a Manhattan Project, and we get a lot of scat singing which reminds me of the Manhattan Transfer.
Yet as this country and China fail to address the same issue in each of our economies, the day when a hard economic rain is going to fall is not only near, but the clouds are nearly overhead.
I'm troubled by short-term thinking. I'm troubled by the notion that things don't have trade-offs, that things lack costs. If you criminalize more things, for example, then you must also build more prisons, and divert resources from other pressing needs. If you fail to treat the drug problem with solutions in addition to expensive incarceration, then the cost on the health care and social system from the drug problem becomes overwhelming. If you create a health care system in which a significant portion of the lower and middle classes cannot have health care, you impose a tax upon everyone else in the form of increased hospital and medical costs to the payor customers to cope with the inefficient provision of services to the uninsured. If AIDS is ravishing the African continent, then the trade monopolies you give to pharmaceutical companies upon intellectual property must be attuned carefully, or a whirlwind of already-collapsed economies will be reaped with what may be chaotic results.
I'm a Democrat, so it would be tempting to say that "this is all the problem of the radical right". I have a few choice paragraphs disparagin gthe radical right that might fit another post, and in particular those fringe elements who, along with the Al Queda terrorist group, proclaimed the storms "God's will" in light of American sin. Yet the problems I observe exist whether Repuliblicans or Democrats are in office.
To me, New Orlans requires a Marshall Plan type reconstruction, which should involve both increased national debt (which for me, a kind of monetarist, is not an easy thing to admit) and some taxation increases. To me, the energy crisis requires a Manhattan Project type research focus, which will also cost money. So, for that matter, does AIDs in Africa.
I tend not to be impressed with cool phrases like:
"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again", if they really mean:
"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again, provided, of course, the rest of the American people do not have to pay more taxes or face other sacrifices".
It's a bit like the airlines. In 2001, the airline industry, bar three or so discount carriers, were within a decade of bankruptcy. Yet the "marquee carriers" could not alter their business plans to become more competitive.
When the September 11 tragedy burned all their short-term cash, the future suddenly became now. Virtually all of them failed, although we are just now seeing a few of the bankruptcies roll in.
Virtually anyone in August 2001 in the business community could predict that the marquee carrier business plan was fatally flawed, in just the same way that on July 31, 2005, virtually anyone with any knowledge of New Orleans could tell you that the levees would not withstand any major hurricane of 3 or higher, much less a 5.
Yet short-term thinking prevailed. The airlines kept on their misguided pricing ways, and New Orleans, the State of Louisiana and FEMA failed to have a proper plan for evacuation of those in the affected area. That's all covered ground, and I'm going to save my thoughts on the flood response itself for a future or never post. I instead see the flood recovery plans, like so many things, to be one more "short sighted scheme of slogans and painless efforts".
But I think that in the flood recovery, as in every other worthy American achievement, the key is to do what it takes, spend what it takes, endure the hardship it takes, and get the job done. We didn't win World War Two by landing inadequate forces on the beaches. We didn't invent the bomb by under-funding the dregs of science (although funding and coordination issues plagued even the Manhattan Project).
I'm not saying "raise taxes and throw money at the problem", as I'm not a big fan of profligate spending.
But one has to remember some of the corporate welfare tax breaks inherent in our system. Take the SUV deduction. Detroit's business model is so badly flawed right now that large automakers only make money off SUV sales. So, despite the fact that we ought not be encouraging gas guzzlers, a corporate welfare bill to enhance SUV deductibility was passed. Despite two generations of recognition that farm subsidies merely enhance profits for corporate agri-business, we still have agricultural subsidies. I wish to give credit to our current president (a relatively rare event for me on economic matters, and a non-existent event for me on Iraq) for calling for all developed nations to drop farm subsidies. But our economy is still fueling agri-business, out of our collective purse, with farm subsidies. It's in part a sentimental issue--just as overfished seas mean that family fishing operations are driven out of business, oversupply in agricultural products will mean that unsubsidized family farms will fail. But rather than phasing in over, say, twenty years, a curtailment of subsidies altogether, we continue to provide this corporate welfare to large agri corporations and to small-ish but by no means subsistence family operations. We still provide U.S. firms too many tax incentives to send jobs overseas, when our policy should be just the opposite. In short, we have short-sighted thinking throughout our taxing structure, which limits and defines what revenue our government has and we have spending priorities which spend money in inappropriate but entrenched ways.
It all goes beyond politics in the ideological sense. I don't care whether you believe in enterprise zones, or whether you believe in community block grants. I don't care much care whether you want to put a moment of silence in schools, or if you believe, as I do, that the "under God" section of the Pledge of Allegiance was expressly put into the bill approving it by President Eisenhower in an overt attempt to subvert our First Amendment (albeit one which may be so de minimis as not to matter).
Don't get on television and tell me how much you care. Don't tell me what your think tanks are ready to say on CNN. Don't tell me that as the Cato Institute, you believe that the market will save New Orleans. Don't tell me that as the Brookings Institute, you're certain that with a major study, we could get our arms around it. Don't tell me that as the Institute for Policy Studies, you predicted this all as a dialectic outgrowth of our corporate/feudal society.
My request for dialogue with politcal America is simple. Just tell me when you're going to get serious about America's problems. Tell me when Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi will be rebuilt. Tell me when you're going to build a public health system and an emergency response system that can handle, say, detonation of a chemical weapon device in Los Angeles. Tell me when you're going to find a workable equilibrium to end this farrago in Iraq. Tell me when you're going to have an energy policy that is more than "we'll drill every darn national park we can" (on the right) or "we will ensure that no power plant, refinery, nuclear plant, dam, or other potentially dangerous or undesirable thing is ever permitted for construction again" (from the left). Tell me when you're going to treat our energy dilemma as a state of hostage to oil despots. Tell me when you're going to address that the economic shifts brought by global competition have given us an underclass not seen since 1910. Tell me why you're making college educations harder for middle class people to obtain, just when we face our largest competition challenges from educated competitors.
That fellow Juvenal felt that if government merely bribed people with sustenance and entertainment,they would sit complacently. He satirized a particular form of welfare state, which I do not wish to see as the alternative. But Juvenal missed that if you pep talk well enough, with either right wing patter or left wing patter, you could escape the boring part of politics about paving the roads and putting textbooks in the schools, responding to disasters and providing a good system of laws and law enforcement. But the pep rally's over. Called for rain.
But don't tell me that you're going to rebuild the Cafe du Monde, and it won't cost a single beignet. It's not God's death I fear. The reports of the demise of divinity are greatly exaggerated.
It's that politics is dead, and yet its corpses talk like zombies.
I'm tired of watching zombies dance.